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March 26, 2008
Ready-to-drink (RTD) tea is one of the fastest-growing beverages in the United States. In fact, major carbonated-soft-drink manufacturers have realigned their business plans, dedicating more resources to R&D and marketing of RTD tea drinks in order to grow their product portfolios.
Numerous entrepreneurial companies, recognizing RTD tea is one of the most-underdeveloped beverage categories, are aggressively carving out a niche through the introduction of unique flavors, formulations and packages. For example, entrepreneur Doni Freundlich founded ABF Beverage, LLC, Cedarhurst, NY, which produces the new Herbal Mist RTD tea. "One of the biggest reasons that Herbal Mist stands out is that it is infused with yerba maté, a popular South American herb that has been shown to provide many health benefits, such as aiding in mental clarity, enhanced immune-system functions, weight control and proper digestion," he says.
Freundlich has long been a passionate iced-tea drinker, but one seldom pleased with the available RTD offerings. "My passion for tea got in the way as far as timeliness is concerned. I refused to settle for something that didnt meet the taste profile that I was looking for, and that included being sweetened with all-natural cane sugar rather than processed or artificial sweeteners," he says. "Where formulation should have taken three to four months, it took us nearly seven months to perfect."
Tea is one of the original "functional" beverages, with a history rich in health and wellness. It is well poised to be the "in" drink for the rest of most of our lives.
The 3,000 or so varieties of "real" tea all come from the same evergreen plantCamellia sinensis. This plant was identified as having beverage qualities when some of its leaves blew into the water that Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung was boiling in 2737 BC. When he drank the mixture, he declared that it gave him vigor of body, contentment of mind and determination of purpose, claims still around today.
Todays scientists have a more-scientific understanding of why Shen-Nung felt so wonderful. One reason is that the human body constantly produces unstable molecules called oxidants, or free radicals. To become stable, oxidants steal electrons from other molecules and, in the process, damage cell proteins and genetic material. This damage may leave the cell vulnerable to cancer. Antioxidants scavenge and seize oxidants. Real tea happens to be loaded with antioxidants classified as catechins.
Real vs. "unreal" tea
There are four common tea varietiesblack, green, oolong and whiteall of which can be further classified by other factors, such as growing region, harvesting season and processing.
Historically, black tea has been the most popular tea in the United States. Black tea is defined as freshly plucked leaves withered indoors in open-air shelves without any physical breaking of the leaf structure. After withering, the leaves are rolled, exposing the leafs enzymes to the atmosphere, allowing them to oxidize. In the tea community, this step is often referred to as fermentation. In this stage, various chemical changes take place in the leaves that are responsible for the briskness, strength and color of the resulting tea beverage. The aroma develops as oxidation proceeds. At a critical point, the fermenting tea leaves are fired at high heat to stop the oxidation.
More recently, green tea has become trendy in the States. The reasons are twofold: Green tea uniquely possesses numerous health benefits documented through clinical trials; and green tea is the preferred variety throughout Asia. Overseas travel, coupled with a booming domestic Asian population, has contributed to the increase in green teas popularity.
Green tea leaves are not fermented. Rather, the leaves are steamed or otherwise heated immediately after plucking to prevent fermentation. These leaves are then rolled and dried. This critical difference in processing yields tea leaves with less caffeine than black teas, and with a lighter, more-subtle flavor.
Oolong tea is fermented only partially, to a point between black and green teas. While the leaves wilt naturally, enzymes begin to ferment them. Processors interrupt the fermentation by stirring the leaves in heated pans, then rolling and drying them.
White tea, like green tea, is not fermented. White tea leaves are allowed to dry completely in the sun without pan-frying or steaming. During plucking, great care is given to leaf selection. Usually only the youngest leaves still covered with down (short, white hair) are used. The absence of withering, rolling and oxidation keeps the appearance of the leaves intact, and because the silvery down is still visible, leaves look white.
Teas made from flowers, herbs or plants other than C. sinensis are considered tisanes, or non-tea teas. Tisanes tend to possess distinctive flavors, and many are recognized for medicinal properties. (See the sidebar, "Tisanes and Traditional Uses," for more information.) Real teas and tisanes can be blended with fruits, or natural or synthetic flavors.
The basis for the beverage
RTD tea can be packaged in single-serve or multi-serve containers, and sold at either ambient or refrigerated temperature. It can also be dispensed on site at a foodservice establishment.
Packaged and dispensed RTD tea beverages are both made using one of the following five types of tea ingredients: instant, or dry-soluble; leaf, which can be loose, bagged or packaged; liquid or frozen concentrate; aromas and essences; and flavors and extracts, which includes ingredients that could be natural or artificial, and possibly made from tea leaves, but not necessarily. Unfortunately, because the term "tea" is not regulated, anything goes, and some RTD beverages describe themselves as tea, but are based on nothing more than an artificial tea flavor.
Many of the original packaged RTD teas rely on "tea kits," which tend to be the most-economical and convenient way of making RTD tea. These kits come from suppliers who premeasure the critical ingredients for the beverage, such as instant tea, flavors and sometimes preservatives. The RTD-beverage manufacturer simply adds water and sweetener, if applicable.
Higher-end RTD tea manufacturers typically use less-refined tea ingredients, including tea concentrates, aromas and essences. "We employ numerous flavor chemists that work directly with plantations in order to import teas that will meet customers specifications," says John Crandall, president/CEO, Amelia Bay, Alpharetta, GA. "These leaves are extracted and blended using a number of proprietary techniques to create a finished, easy-to-use brewed-quality beverage product. From here, the extracts can be shipped in raw form, or we use our in-house flavor staff to produce a finished beverage with a multitude of sweeteners and other flavors."
Some beverage manufacturers prefer to steep leaves. Milos Tea Co., Inc., Bessemer, AL, prides itself on brewing fresh leaves to make its iced tea, which requires refrigeration since the company does not add any preservatives. Pasteurization is its freshness guarantee.
"To bring all-natural products to market, our brewing, logistics and delivery systems are extremely detailed," says Mitch Wolfe, sales and marketing manager, Milos Tea. This includes working with nearby dairies to use their refrigerated trucks for distribution.
Flavor-extract supplier Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, NY, uses proprietary technology to steep leaves for beverage manufacturers, producing highly concentrated tea extracts. "We can then combine the tea extracts with our flavor extracts to provide RTD beverage manufacturers with a complete tea flavoring package," says Anton Angelich, group vice president, marketing, Virginia Dare. "Because the tea extracts come directly from real tea leaves, marketers can say the beverage is brewed from real tea." The companys most-recent tea-beverage extracts are rooibos and white tea, which join an extensive list, including black, green and oolong.
The health angle
Not all tea ingredients are created equal, and not all RTD teas have the same health profile. The high antioxidant value associated with catechins, specifically epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) found in high-quality green and white tea, has been positively linked to a range of health conditions. EGCG content varies by tea variety and ingredient form. Thus, marketers wanting to make antioxidant-content claims on RTD teas must work closely with their suppliers to have proper documentation.
In Feb. 2007, Enviga sparkling green tea entered the U.S. market. This RTD tea is the brainchild of Beverage Partners Worldwide, a joint venture of Nestlé S.A., Vevey, Switzerland, and The Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta. The beverage "represents the perfect partnership of science and nature, providing an optimum blend of green-tea extracts called EGCG and caffeine," claims Rhona Applebaum, chief scientist, Coca-Cola. "Enviga is designed to work with your body to increase calorie burning. It creates a negative calorie effectin other words, you burn more calories than you get from drinking it."
The Nestlé Research Center (NRC) in Lausanne, Switzerland, has long studied the properties and benefits of green tea. A recent study conducted by the University of Lausanne in cooperation with NRC revealed that when EGCG and caffeine are present at levels comparable to that in three cans of this tea beverage, healthy subjects in the lean-to-normal weight range can experience an average increase in calorie burning by 60 to 100 calories. It provides 90 mg of EGCG in each serving, along with 20% of the Daily Value for calcium.
EGCG has been positively linked to a range of health conditions, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimers disease, diabetes and autoimmune diseases, as well as improved skin health and weight loss, and enhanced immunity. As with all "functional ingredients," documented clinical tests are necessary before any claims can be made.
The Oct. 2007 issue of The Journal of the American College of Nutrition (26: 445-452) includes results from a clinical trial of 120 healthy subjects who consumed either a patent-pending proprietary blend of biologically active natural ingredients from green tea or a placebo. The green-tea ingredient blend, as compared to the placebo, decreased the number of subjects with cold and flu symptoms by about one-third; decreased the number of symptom days by about one-third; decreased the need for medical treatment due to cold and flu symptoms by more than 50%; and enhanced innate immune function by about 30%.
Other functional ingredients can boost RTD tea beverages healthful halo. The Republic of Tea, Novato, CA, and LUNA, Berkeley, CA, collaborated to create the first line of bottled organic nutritional iced tea for women. It has 50 calories per 12-oz. bottle, is made with 70% organic ingredients and includes many nutrients women need every day, including folate, calcium and vitamin D.
Consumer-targeted RTD tea formulation is bound to catch on. For example, soy isoflavones have a structure similar to the hormone estrogen and share some of the physiological properties of estrogen, which makes them appealing to menopausal women. In fact, clinical research shows that select soy isoflavones may reduce the incidence of menopausal-related hot flashes, and possibly improve arterial health.
Soy isoflavones can be added invisibly to iced tea beverages to provide 25 mg of soy isoflavones per serving. "The iced tea ADM has developed as a prototype is an excellent example of how the ingredient can easily be incorporated into beverages," says Liza Pepple, Novasoy product manager, ADM, Decatur, IL. "The tea has a crisp, refreshing taste and offers consumers unique functional benefits."
The possibilities are endless when you start with a plant that has been consumed as a beverage for centuries. As science progresses and product developers pursue varied formulations, RTD tea will continue to steal shelf space from carbonated soft drinks.
Donna Berry, president of Chicago-based Dairy & Food Communications, Inc., a network of professionals in business-to-business technical and trade communications, has been writing about product development and marketing for 13 years. Prior to that, she worked for Kraft Foods in the natural-cheese division. She has a B.S. in Food Science from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at [email protected].
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